November 12, 2013 is a day that Ryan Ferguson will never forget. After spending nearly a decade in prison for crimes he didn’t commit, he regained his freedom at the age of 29.
On October 31, 2001, Ryan Ferguson and his friend Chuck Erickson, both 17-year-old high school students, attended a few Halloween parties and then continued to drink at a local bar in Columbia, Missouri. That same night, Kent Heitholt, the sports editor of the Columbia Daily Tribune, was found beaten and strangled to death during an attempted robbery in the parking lot outside of the newspaper’s offices – not far from where Ferguson and Erickson had been partying.
Around 2:30 a.m., Jerry Trump and Shawna Ornt, janitors at the Tribune’s office building, noticed two people standing near Heitholt’s car and called the police. Trump told police he was not able to see the men clearly; however, Ornt was able to help police create a composite sketch and was considered their “sole witness” to the crime. Police located two bloody pairs of footprints, fingerprints, and a strand of hair at the scene, but they were unable to identify any suspects.
The night of the murder, Erickson had been under the influence of cocaine, Adderall, and alcohol, which caused him to blackout. As the case drew attention from the local media, Erickson began to have dreams about the murder, prompting him to question his actions on the night that it happened. He asked Ferguson if they had any involvement in the murder, and Ferguson assured him that they were not involved in the 2001 murder at all.
In 2004, a local newspaper released a revised sketch of the suspect and Erickson believed it resembled him. After expressing his worries to a couple of friends, one alerted the police and he was taken into custody for questioning. During his interrogation, Erickson didn’t know any details surrounding the murder, including what Heitholt was strangled with. Police then brought Ferguson in for questioning. Ferguson told police that he and Erickson had been drinking at a local bar until 1:30am and then he drove Erickson home before taking himself home. Despite no evidence linking them to the crime, and any apparent motive, Missouri prosecutor Kevin Crane charged Ferguson and Erickson with murder.
Erickson agreed to a plea deal for a lighter sentence of 25 years in exchange for testimony against Ferguson. At Ferguson’s 2005 trial, Erickson took the stand and claimed that Ferguson had killed Heitholt during their attempt to rob him for money to buy more alcohol. Despite several inconsistencies in his testimony, Erickson was able to provide accurate details surrounding how Heitholt was murdered – none of which he remembered during his 2004 interrogation.
Erickson wasn’t the only person who lied on the stand under oath. Trump, the former Tribune janitor, who had previously stated that he couldn’t describe the two men in the parking lot, was suddenly able to place them at the scene. He claimed that while he was serving time in jail, on charges irrelevant to the case, his wife had mailed him an article about the unsolved murder of Heitholt. While looking at the photos in the article, he was able to identify Ferguson as one of the men he saw.
Ferguson was found guilty of second-degree murder and robbery and sentenced to 40 years in prison.
In a 2012 public court hearing, Erickson and Trump admitted that they had committed perjury because Crane had pressured them into testifying against Ferguson. Erickson said that he was sure that Ferguson was not guilty.
In November 2013, a Missouri appeals court overturned Ferguson’s conviction. The court ruled that the prosecution withheld evidence from the defense, including an interview with Trump’s wife who said she never sent him the article while he was prison and that Ornt, the “sole witness,” was never asked in court if she could identity Ferguson.
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